You introduce an almost completely new team. You have two players who have recently been quarantined for COVID-19. You have an international player who had difficulty getting into the U.S. Your season is postponed due to the pandemic. Your schedule is radically altered. You finally get to your first match and what’s the reward? For the Arizona volleyball team, it’s the No. 10 Utah Utes.
“If we’re gonna compete with these guys our swing percentage is going to have to be 90%,” Rubio said. “What the swing percentage means is that we’re setting a ball, and our hitters are getting up and hitting it at least 90% of the time, whether it’s in serve receive or it’s in transition. If we’re giving them free balls and down balls, it’s going to be lights out for the Cats quickly.”
While the Utes aren’t the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the AVCA poll, they were voted No. 1 in the conference preseason poll. It’s their first time to land in the top spot since they joined the league and the first time they’ve ever been higher than fourth.
“They’re old,” Rubio said. “And they’re extremely athletic and they’re super talented. I mean, those are all ingredients you need to be a Final Four-level team. They have enough talent and good enough talent to be a Final Four-level team. They got one of the best players in the country. Certainly one of the best players in our conference with Dani Drews. They have an opposite—that number four—that’s terrific, that’s 6-3 or 6-4. And they’re both left-handed kids. And to defend those guys is different because of the angles that they can hit the ball from are just different and you’re just not used to defending those kind of players.
“So, they have a terrific setter who I believe is going to be, I think she’s a junior now. And at middle, they lost their one middle, so that’ll be a loss for them. But I’m sure that she’s got somebody in the pipeline that’s going to be able to take over for that particular player.”
The middle blocker the Utes lost to graduation was Berkeley Oblad, a second-team AVCA All-American in 2019. She was one of just four Utes in program history to have at least 1,000 kills and 500 blocks. But Utah is one of those programs that usually just reloads.
More importantly, as Rubio noted, they’re a very experienced team at the most important positions. Outside hitter Drews and opposite Kenzie Koerber were both voted to the preseason All-Pac-12 team.
The Wildcats counter with fellow All-Pac-12 outside hitter Paige Whipple, but she’s joined by just three other players who saw the court with regularity last season: middle blocker Zyonna Fellows, libero Kamaile Hiapo and defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua.
The Wildcats brought in the No. 7 recruiting class and have the services of some very talented transfers, but they all need to learn how they fit in the program and how to work as a group. Add the COVID-19 challenges of several quarantines over the offseason, and it’s a big reason Arizona was picked to finish 10th this season.
“We’re gonna start four freshmen and two sophomores and two seniors,” Rubio said. “So we’re really young. And, you know, I see that every single day that we practice. The players have bought in and they’re really good to coach. But there’s a part of what you don’t know, you don’t know. And that’s kind of where they are. I mean, life becomes very real for us in a volleyball sense this weekend. We’re playing the team that’s been preseason ranked number one in the conference, and Utah was in the Final Four last year.”
No one wants youth to be the only story, though.
“We really only have four returning players,” Whipple said. “And so (Rubio’s) message is kind of we can live with the fact that we’re young and we can use that as an excuse, or the young players can continue to develop and the older ones as leaders can continue to bring them along and we don’t have to use youth as an excuse.”
With the revamped schedule, Arizona will play Utah on Friday night, then remain in Salt Lake City for another match on Sunday. It’s definitely new but Rubio has no complaints.
“I like having to go back to back,” he said. “In fact, if it was my druthers, I’d rather play teams back to back than, you know, play Colorado and then go on the road and have to play Utah. Something like that. I like the opportunity to make the adjustments that we’re gonna need to make from one night to the next.”
How to follow along
- Date/Time: Friday, Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. MST and Sunday, Jan. 24 at 12 p.m. MST
- Location: Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
- Stream: Both matches will be streamed on Utah Live Stream
- Stats: In-match stats will be available via Arizona Live Stats
- Twitter: Follow us at @AZDesertSwarm. You can also follow our editor at @RKelapire and our reporter at @KimDoss71 for coverage during the game and throughout the season.